James MacGregor Burns

James MacGregor Burns … An American Icon, Part II

VTR Date: October 18, 2007

James MacGregor Burns discusses politics and government.


GUEST: James MacGregor Burns
VTR: 10/18/07

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind.
And this is the second of two new programs – actually our 19th and 20th television conversations together over the past half century – with James MacGregor Burns, Woodrow Wilson Professor of Government Emeritus at Williams College, Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winning historian and political scientist.

As I noted last time, of all Jim Burn’s innumerable studies of leadership and followership in America, my favorite remains The Lion and The Fox , the first volume of his magnificent biography of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. And I suggest we now pick up where we left off last time. Jim, we were talking about the crap shoot that you call the Supreme Court and appointment of its members. And you were talking about Dwight Eisenhower and the, perhaps the error he made in mis-judging the character of Earl Warren, thinking that he’d continue to be a Conservative.

BURNS: Yes, it’s rather ironic, Dick, because usually it’s Liberals complaining about Liberals in quotes having been appointed to the Court and then became Conservative.

But the opposite happened in the case of Ike. He appointed Warren because Warren was a good Republican. Republican Governor of California and then he had been, and nobody remembers this, but he had been Tom Dewey’s running mate for the Presidency. A good Republican.

So he appoints Warren to the Court and again the crap shoot from my standpoint, a nice crap shoot this time. And that Warren steadily becomes the Liberal leader of the Court and year after year for all the years he was on the Court, he is becoming more and more Liberal. Greatly annoying Ike, who says it’s the worst mistake he ever made.

But I, I don’t think we should be governed by this kind of strange change in people. I don’t think … let me put this differently … if, if it were an elected Court and the Conservatives of this country were in the majority and Warren was appointed as a Conservative, but it was an 8 year term, at the end of 8 years, Earl Warren would have to go before the country to be re-chosen, reelected to the Supreme Court. But if he had shifted from Conservative to Liberal and the Conservatives were still in the majority, of course, they could throw him out.

But … I’d hate that because I think very highly of Earl Warren. But again we come down to the basic question that you have always made so clearly … a question … and that is, majority rule. In a democracy we have majority rule. The question is, what kind of majority rule? And I would say that a permanent, unelected Supreme Court is not part of majority rule.

HEFFNER: Gotcha. Gotcha. Let me, let me, let me ask … turn the, the question somewhat here. You’ve … I’ve said your … about your great interest in leadership. Let me ask you a question about that. I, I made a list the other day … a little list … since you and I first spoke, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush 1, Clinton, Bush 2 … do they meet your criteria for leadership?

BURNS: By and large … no. No. And I have two forms of leadership that should be brought in here. Something I call “transforming leadership” where you really bring about fundamental changes that are necessary in a country, as I think Roosevelt did. And the other is transactional leadership. The President as broker, negotiator. And, of course, every President has to be something of a broker and a negotiator. But I think the Presidents you’ve just listed have been mainly transactional leaders. Brokers who are very good at making deals and so on, but have not been able to live up to the huge challenge. Well, take global warming as just one example, that faced the country.

HEFFNER: Do you think, if I may be political …

BURNS: (Laugh)

HEFFNER: … that our friend Al Gore would have been able to deal, let’s say … you bring up the question of environmental matters, global warming.

BURNS: I don’t know that the Al Gore we knew politically would have been able to … I think the Al Gore we know now in office …

HEFFNER: No longer the candidate.

BURNS: Pardon?

HEFFNER: No longer the candidate.

BURNS: No longer the candidate, but in office. But it’s a very good exampled, because if we had a system where we could elect stronger Presidents, by which I mean, again, transforming Presidents who … like Roosevelt and other Presidents we’ve have … Lincoln, finally … and so on … are able to get on top of these problems instead of just sort of trying to play with them … that’s the kind of thing that I’m so concerned about.

HEFFNER: Jim, for 52 years now at this table, people have come and said, “ay de me” … oh my god … about something or other, some problem in our society. And when the beady red eye of the television camera is turned off … and I ask them, you know, is there some way out … often the answer has been … not unless there is a great cataclysmic event in our country. Another great war. Another great depression. Franklin Roosevelt did his magic in terms of both experiences of the American nation.

Do you think it’s possible to have the kind of leadership that you look for so longingly without that kind of disruption, chaos, disaster?

BURNS: Only if it could be done over a period of time and with a President who is in office. Let’s take global warming which is not my main concern, but I think the nation’s very concerned. Where there’s no one decisive act that’s going to solve the problem. It’s a series of acts, a series of laws over time. I think then … take Gore as an example, someone like him with his conviction, and I think, political skill. If he were able to stay in office for the decade or so that probably would be required for global warming or for the … any other kind of problem that you’re talking about … I think we might have a chance.

But look at the problem. First of all, there might be times as in the case of Roosevelt where you really need a President for more than two terms because the problem demands continuous action over time, where we have the anti-third term Amendment preventing that. And we have the … getting into Constitutional aspects of our system, we have the strange two year terms for House of Representatives.

I can’t, you know, talking about our system and its effectiveness and its potential … I can’t imagine anything more ancient than two year terms. I mean having run for Congress, I know that you spend a year just trying to make up for the money you’ve spent (laughter) in the campaign, and so on.

So you’ve got the two year … off year … and then you’ve got the six year Senate term. So, here’s a President who comes in … doing global warming … Gore or maybe it’s a Republican, say … and he’s got a great big push, he’s elected to do, he’s got a good Senate and he’s got a good House and then he’s got all these problems as soon as the first two years ago by and there’s a certain amount of dissatisfaction … the House of Representatives might turn against him. And this is not even talking about the Supreme Court that he may face. The Supreme Court may not be very concerned about, say, global warming.

So, coming back to your question about leadership … how do you exercise leadership in a situation like that? Well, what most Presidents do is that they interfere … in most instances and they try to get the Congress or Senate or House and so on. They can’t do much about the Supreme Court. So I don’t see whatever this next great crisis is … I think to get to the bottom line … we will fumble our way along finally get a strong President elected, because that’s the one thing that people have a lot of control over … and then, after maybe euphoria of a year or two, maybe some transforming leadership … then the system will do what it always has done … it will kill … it will kill strong leadership.

HEFFNER: If you had your druthers, what changes would you now make in our instrument of government, as amended, including the no third term?

BURNS: If I really (laugh) could do it …

HEFFNER: No, share it with me.

BURNS: I would want a four year term for members of the House of Representatives, four year term for Senate, keep the four year term for President and have them all elected, so that people at one time could choose Senate, House and President.

The I would put the Supreme Court on an eight year basis and this is a little shaky because eight years is a long time, but I would have eight year terms for members of the Supreme Court so that at least they could be brought into the electoral system to some degree. And I think that would make it possible for government to act very effectively.

HEFFNER: Would you have term limits?


HEFFNER: So that one could deal with problems that require years and years and perhaps decades …


HEFFNER: … in that way.

BURNS: If we could take the Al Gore case again because it’s such an interesting one at the moment. Al Gore … let’s say my sister worked … not Al Gore necessarily, but an Al Gore, or a woman who was elected President. Then, then I would hope that working for the party, and that’s one thing we haven’t talked about and should really be brought into this … is the question of Party leadership. The President is a Party leader. Roosevelt to some degree was effective as a Party leader. I think Parties have now become so strong … both Democratic and Republican … that they … the President will have to be a Party leader. And I would say in regard to President George Bush, he is a strong Party leader. He’s made the Party or helped make the Party into a very coherent, strong force. Although without much majority support. But that could be in the future.

So to get back to the main point, then. I think what we would have to have to deal with the kind of crisis … this is my bottom line … the kind of crisis that we’re talking about … is a much more effective majoritarian leadership that is able to exercise what I call transforming leadership and not simply brokerage, day to day, transactional leadership.

HEFFNER: And my concerns, expressed so often and I appreciate the degree to which you pay your respects to them about the tyranny of majorities. That doesn’t loom large in your considerations, does it?

BURNS: I am concerned about it, but my point is I don’t think the Supreme Court would help you. If you had a tyrannical majority they would just override the Supreme Court. The thing to do, Dick, it seems to me, is to bring about the year to year, decade to decade solutions that do not precipitate the kind of crisis that would lead to the tyranny of the majority.

HEFFNER: Jim, in … in all these years of colloquy exchanged between the two of us … I’ve wondered … is it inappropriate or unfair to ask you … have you changed your mind as a political scientist, a historian … re some major aspect of your convictions?

BURNS: Yes. And the reason this has happened, Dick, is that, as you have pointed out and as you know, I’ve been mainly a political scientist. And I still am a political scientist. But what happened to me a few years ago was to get increasingly interested in leadership.

Not the kind of superficial talk you hear about leadership, but what is the essence of leadership? And I came to something you mentioned, very quickly and that is “followership”. I’ve become very concerned about leadership as followership … the relation between leaders and followers and that’s why Roosevelt is such a good example because he gave leadership and then he got great followership in those elections and I’m hoping for this in the future.

So what’s happened as I got into leadership, which can be a very dangerous thing, the very kind of thing you’re emphasizing in this discussion … it’s a question of if you have strong leadership can you get strong followership?

And that brings us back to things like political parties, which do act for the rank and file and just as, as a political scientist I used to worry about the weakness of parties. As a student of leadership I feel that parties and Party leaders can take a much stronger role in this country and that whether it’s Democratic or Republican or maybe someday a different Party that, that the kind of thing you’re concerned about, the tyranny of the majority … will not happen because the party is organized in terms of followership and not just with some dictator-type at the top.

HEFFNER: And you don’t foresee that happening?

BURNS: Well, there are some trends towards this in both Parties. First of all, the Republican Party, I think, has shown itself to be very effective at mobilizing support and very effective in holding itself together compared to the Democrats.

HEFFNER: And you applaud that, don’t you?

BURNS: Yes. And the Democratic Party, it’s simply at a time when they’re trying to find a new leader; they’re all … naturally … fighting among themselves. Which brings us to the question as to whether the Democratic Party will find the leadership next year that will be majority leadership … but to get to your point, is not going to be the kind of tyrannical leadership that both you and I are so concerned about.

But to get back to my interest in leadership. To me great leadership is moral leadership, ethical leadership, not just leadership on specific issues. And that’s where I would turn, again, to the kind of President who, like Roosevelt, despite all his frailties, is able to exercise either Conservatively or Liberally (laugh) a strong moral and ethical leadership.

HEFFNER: You know, it interests me, you say FDR despite all of his frailties … usually the criticism of Roosevelt is not about frailties …

BURNS: (Sigh)

HEFFNER: … but about the opposite. But … how do you … it seems so silly, we do so much by way of ranking people. This one is the first in this … that one is the second … how do you rank these Presidents we’ve had since we’ve spoken together.

Not a woman yet. You said, when you were last here that you thought that might be on the horizon. You even then mentioned Hillary Clinton. Do you still think so?

BURNS: Yes, I think she has a great potential and … but, even aside from that … it seems to me it’s about time we had a woman President. (Laugh)

HEFFNER: But you don’t mean just any woman.

BURNS: No. But … she is not just any woman.

HEFFNER: Okay. All right. How do you rank these … from Eisenhower on …

BURNS: Well, I would just … first of all, I think Eisenhower was a pretty good President, compared to some of the Democratic criticism. I rank Reagan very high, as a President.


BURNS: Well, first of all his personality, it’s a little bit like FDR, although a different type of thing, but he simply … he had this gift which I think is so crucial in Presidents … the common touch and so on. Secondly, he was not the kind who would precipitate us into war. Thirdly, he … he had a great style of leadership, not only in regard to his own Party, but also the Democratic leadership, he worked with. He was very good at working cross-parties and so on. And I guess it’s just that I … compared to some of the other Presidents I just like Warren as a person. I’m sorry …

HEFFNER: Reagan.

BURNS: Reagan as a person. Even though I never met him and I think he also did something very important. He really salvaged the Republican Party which had gone through the defeats by Roosevelt. Then the horrible business with Nixon who dragged the party down with his own defeat and resignation and so on.

And he restored, he restored the Republican Party to the majority party without there being any tyranny of the majority.

HEFFNER: So he’s the one who stands out among these, among these Presidents.


HEFFNER: Over the years you and I have talked about your desire, strong desire to have a Party stand for something and for us to have a two party system in which you clearly knew there was a vast difference between the, the two. You still feel that way?

BURNS: That was polarization, as we call it. Polarization. Yes.

HEFFNER: And I used that word when you talked about that in a negative way … polarization.

BURNS: I believe in polarization depending on how we define it. I’m not talking about one party out here and another party out there. I’m talking about a significant difference between two parties. And to me one of the wonderful things about American history and you know … you’re an expert in American history … that despite all the distractions and the like … that since the founding period we have had these two parties changing over time, but very … to simplify it some … a Liberal Party against a Conservative Party. A meaningful Liberal Party, a meaningful Conservative Party.

And somehow miraculously that has continued. But it’s very hard to keep what I would like to see, which is very clear distinction between the two that Democrats are clearly Liberal; Republicans are clearly Conservative. And that gets all messed up with Third Parties and the like.

But to the extent we’ve had that historically, it’s produced today two parties that really are different.

HEFFNER: So you’ve got what you want.

BURNS: That’s what I want. And again … how different? Not this, I repeat … just the kind of differences we see being argued out and presented in this year. And I think, I think where the two parties are headed, the Republicans are being very honest it seems to me in this campaign with their candidates … all Conservative; proudly Conservative. I honor that.

I would like the Democrats to be proudly Liberal, or Progressive if they prefer a different word. And to the extent we present the American people, who need a certain amount of simplification … clear ideas as to what the choice is … to the extent we present a really clear meaningful choice to the American people I think we get effective government.

HEFFNER: Do you feel that the present candidacies in the Democratic Party give you the same sense of they’re all Liberal as the candidates in the Republican primaries are all Conservative?

BURNS: (Laugh) Good question. Almost. But you know the Democrats always have trouble. Liberals always have trouble sticking together. And Conservatives do better. But, yes, I think the Liberal candidates really are very closely attuned to each other.

HEFFNER: And you’re saying all the candidates are Liberal? I mean that’s the question that I was asking. You’re saying all the Republicans are Conservative and you honor them for that.

BURNS: I think all the main, leading …

HEFFNER: All right.

BURNS: … Democrats are Liberal.

HEFFNER: Yeah. And I, I did mean that. And you’re prediction?

BURNS: Oh, (laugh) I’m a terrible predicter. You know since you give me such credit for predicting that awful event of 9/11 I think I should say, “Look, I’m quitting, that’s …

HEFFNER: Quitting while you’re ahead.

BURNS: … that was just a stroke of luck … I mean I knew nothing, obviously, about it. I think … everybody’s saying this … but I believed it for a long time.

I happen to think, since you asked … that Hillary Clinton is a great potential leader. And I think she is likely to win the Democratic nomination. And I think she’s likely to be our next President.

HEFFNER: You … you, you … I sort of thought I saw a hesitation about the next “likely”; that you’re not quite so sure about … or am I misreading your …

BURNS: About …

HEFFNER: That she will, if she’s the candidate … she will be the President.


HEFFNER: That the Democrats are going to win. And we only have one minute, so if you want to fillibuster for that minute.

BURNS: I’m sure that she will be the Democratic nominee.


BURNS: Then I am sure that she will …

HEFFNER: You are.

BURNS: … be the next President. But I think she will be … to me the crucial thing is if the woman is otherwise qualified, as she is … a woman President is what we’ve been waiting for.

HEFFNER: Why? 30 seconds.

BURNS: Because we … because other countries do it, because in a democracy women now are becoming so active, they’re becoming Senators and judges … justices, and so forth. Executive. And we have this glaring absence of the White House and that is our big symbol.

HEFFNER: Jim Burns, I don’t know if I agree with your reasons, but I reach the same conclusion that you do. And I applaud it and thank you for joining me again on The Open Mind.

And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. If you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4.00 in check or money order to The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150.

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.